Summary: Rights and Duties Pertaining to Kept Animals

In the name of Allah, Merciful and Compassionate

Throughout our history, humans have kept animals for a variety of purposes and benefits. We keep them for their many products, including their hair, wool, meat, and leather. We keep them to perform tasks, such as transportation, pulling plows, or turning machinery. Some we keep for hunting game; others we keep for companionship, or protection. More recently in our history, some are kept for experimentation and testing. Animals are a part of our everyday lives and environment. Even individuals who do not keep animals experience the benefits and harms of keeping animals. So our relationship to animals and how we treat them should be of concern to each individual human.

Animals are at the heart of many of today’s heated ethical and legal debates, some of which enter into the public sphere. Many of those debates concern animal rights and welfare, and our responsibilities toward them. While there is a great deal of disagreement over these issues, there is no disagreement that the issues are important.

Muslims should be even more concerned about these issues since animals and their treatment are mentioned in Islam’s primary textual sources (the Qur’an and Prophetic narratives). Furthermore, subsequent generations of scholars commented on these source texts and included them in legal and moral literature. In hopes of increasing our involvement in these issues, I would like to present a synopsis of what – in sha Allah – will be the first of several Tabah Research pieces related to animals.

The focus of this first paper is to clarify the Islamic legal and ethical norms related to kept animals. Future papers will – in sha Allah – apply this foundation to specific issues.

* * *

The primary sources for Islamic creed, ethics, and law are the Qur’an and Prophetic narrations (also known as hadith).

Living creatures are a significant part of the Qur’anic text. The Qur’an mentions many classes and species of animals. Six chapters of the Qur’an are named after animals: “The Cow,” [Q2], “Livestock,” [Q6], “The Ant,” [Q27], “The Spider,” [Q29], and “The Elephant” [Q105].[1]

Many verses in the Qur’an clarify the relationship between mankind and other animals. Allah informs us in the Qur’an that He created everything that is in the earth for mankind to use and that He has given mankind dominion over them, for the Quran states: “He created for you all that there is on Earth” [Q2:29].[2] Animals are included among “all that there is on the earth.” Allah also informs us that this creation has been subjected for human use, for the Quran states: “Have you not seen that Allah has subjected to you all that is in the earth, and the ships that run upon the sea by His command, and He holds back the sky from falling on the earth unless by His leave? Surely Allah is Kind and Compassionate to mankind” [Q22:65].[3]

Additional verses clarify some of the uses that animals provide for mankind. These uses include: being sources of nourishment and transportation, being sources of clothing and shelter, being used for warfare, and for hunting.

Other verses urge humans to ponder the creation of animals and the many benefits they provide so that we strengthen our belief in Allah and in order to prompt our thanks for His blessings.

And other verses show that improper treatment of animals and tampering with Allah’s creation are both manifestations of misguidance. Clearly, these last verses show that there are limits to how we interact with Allah’s creation.

The Qur’an does not provide specific guidelines for interacting with animals. However, specific guidelines and details for interacting with animals are given in Prophetic narrations.

Some of these Prophet narrations indicate what sorts of interactions with animals are unlawful. For example, it is prohibited

  • to confine or starve an animal
  • to beat an animal or use it for a target;
  • to brand or hit an animal on the face;
  • to take young animals from their parents;
  • to burn animals;
  • to damage their habitats;
  • to render an animal community (or species) extinct;
  • to cut flesh from an animal while it is alive;
  • to deprive a mother’s offspring from her milk via excessive milking; and
  • to burden an animal with more than it can bear.

Other Prophetic narrations indicate several obligations and duties towards animals. For example, it is commanded

  • to provide kept animals with adequate food or let them to provide for themselves;
  • to avoid harming animals whenever possible;
  • to trim one’s fingernails when milking; and
  • to leave enough milk for a mother’s offspring.

Others narrations indicate that

  • it is permissible to kill vermin and aggressive animals;
  • it is permissible to keep animals as pets;
  • that good treatment is a cause for forgiveness;
  • that bad treatment is a cause for punishment; and
  • that animals experience feelings and mental states;

For the sake of brevity, I will mention several hadiths that cover the bulk of the points just mentioned.

Abū Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said: A person suffering from intense thirst while on a journey came upon a well. He climbed down into it and drank. When he exited the well he saw a dog lolling its tongue on account of thirst and eating moistened earth. The person said, “This dog has suffered from thirst just as I had.” He climbed down into the well, filled his shoe with water, then caught it in his mouth until he climbed up and gave it to the dog to drink. Allah thanked him for this act and pardoned him. [The Companions (may Allah be pleased with them)] said, “O Messenger of Allah, is there a reward for us even for [serving] these animals?” He said, “Yes, there is a reward for [rendering service to] every living animal.” [Bukhari & Muslim]

Ibn ʿUmar (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “A woman was tormented because of a cat which she had confined until it died and [for this] she entered Hellfire. She did not provide it with food or drink as it was confined, nor did she free it so that it might eat the vermin of the earth.” [Bukhari & Muslim]

Shaddād bin ʿAus (may Allah be pleased with him) said that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Verily Allah has prescribed beneficence (iḥsn) in all things. When you kill, kill well; and when you slaughter, slaughter well. Let each one of you sharpen his blade and let him spare suffering to the animal he slaughters.” [Muslim]

Ibn ʿUmar (may Allah be pleased with him) came across some young men from the Quraysh tribe who had tied a bird at which they then shot arrows. Every arrow that missed would then belong to the bird’s owner. The men scattered as soon as they saw Ibn ʿUmar. Thereupon Ibn ʿUmar said, “Who has done this? Allah has cursed him who does this. Indeed, the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace) invoked curses upon whomever makes a live thing a target [for marksmanship].” [Bukhari & Muslim]

ʿAbd Allāh ibn Jaʿfar (may Allah be pleased with him) relates that one day he rode with the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and give him peace), and they entered the garden of a man from the Medinan Helpers. When a camel saw the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace), it suddenly wept tenderly, making a yearning sound, and its eyes flowed with tears. The Prophet came to it and wiped the temple of its head, and then the camel became silent. He then said, “Who is the master of this camel? Whose camel is this?” A young man from the Medinan Helpers came and said, “This is mine, Messenger of Allah.” He said, “Do you not fear Allah about this beast which Allah has put in your possession? It has complained to me that you keep it hungry and load it heavily, which fatigues it.” [Abu Dawud]

So the Qur’an states that mankind has been given dominion over animal kind along with permission to make use of animals. It also warns that abuse is a sign of misguidance. Prophetic narrations clarify that our interactions with animals are constrained by responsibilities to provide for them, to show them kindness, to avoid harming or abusing them, and to relieve their suffering.

One major takeaway here is that animal welfare and care have been an integral part of Islam from its very beginning.

* * *

These verses and hadiths mentioned above are part of the source material that Muslim scholars consider when developing rulings related to the treatment of animals.

Animals are mentioned in a variety of places within legal literature, including rulings related to their purity, edibility, how they are slaughtered, hunting with animals, financial transactions involving animals, and contests. But the bulk of rulings related to the treatment of kept animals is found within the chapter of marriage, within sections dealing with financial support of dependents (nafaqah). These rulings have been standard fare since the earliest written books of law.

In my paper, I focused on a single school of law – the school of Imam al-Shāfiʿī who passed away in 204AH/820CE. I started with the works of the Imam, and moved my from older texts to newer. And I found that Imam al-Shāfiʿī included these rulings in Al-Umm[4]. And out of the more than forty Shāfiʿī texts that I read, I did not find a single one that did not include care for animals when discussing caring for one’s family. That these rulings are consistently included here alongside one’s obligations towards his parents, wife, and children shows the elevated status of kept animals.

Imam al-Ghazālī – who passed away in 505AH/1111CE – provides a typical coverage of this section in his book al-Was. He writes:

It is obligatory [for an owner] to provide fodder for his animals, since their lives are inviolable. Due to this [inviolability], it is not permissible to abuse them nor to slaughter them except to eat. Similarly, he does not exhaust their milk thereby harming their progeny.

It is permissible to steal fodder and thread [to suture a wound] if it is on the verge of dying – according to the evident opinion of the school.

A traveler puts the need of animals for water above his [own] ablution [for prayer] and, thus, makes dry ablution [with dirt].

If the land becomes barren, he must provide fodder for animals that graze.

It is not obligatory for him to maintain his house, [irrigation] canals, and immovable property – even if those are on the verge of destruction, since inviolability is for that which possesses life.

If he refuses to provide fodder [to an animal], the judge can force him to sell it, or sell it on his behalf.[5]

Something to note here is that animals have sanctity by virtue of being alive and possessing a soul – not just when they are someone’s property.

Legal literature focuses on the status of actions with respect to permissibility and validity. There are other writings that focus on actions but from a broader perspective that includes welfare (maṣlaḥah) and beneficence (iḥsān). So alongside legal rulings – like those presented in the quotation from the Wasīṭ of Imām al-Ghazālī – there are also discussions related to the welfare of kept animals (maṣlaḥah), and beneficence towards them (iḥsn).

The writings of al-ʿIzz ibn ʿAbd al-Salām – another Shāfiʿī scholar who passed away in 660AH/1261CE – provide one of the best examples of literature incorporating welfare and beneficent into legal issues. His Qawāʿid al-aḥkm fī maṣliḥ al-anm [Rules of the derivation of laws for reforming the people] focuses on welfare. In it, he includes a section devoted to man’s duties towards animals. The section mentions duties related to slaughtering and hunting, and duties related to kept animals. The duties of keepers towards kept animals include that keepers continue to provide for their animals’ needs even when an animal is ill or no longer provides a benefit.

This duty to provide for animals that are not useful is particularly interesting. It shows that the sanctity of animal life is not dependent on its being property or presenting a potential benefit. It also suggests that keepers of animals do not have an absolute right to dispose of and manage their kept animals however they see fit. If an owner has a duty to provide for an animal even after it is sick or infirm, then what about releasing an animal into an environment where it cannot fend for itself?

The section mentions other duties, including not burdening an animal beyond its capacity, and separating aggressive or harmful animals from their victims. It is also a duty to provide animals with shelter and pasture that is appropriate and well kept, and to allow animals to mate during their mating season.[6]

Al-ʿIzz ibn ʿAbd al-Salām also wrote about beneficence towards kept animals in several parts of his Shajarat al-maʿārifah wa al-aḥwāl [Trees of all sorts of knowledge and states]. Section 390 of the book is titled “Beneficence (iḥsān) towards Owned Animals”. It includes additional details and some of the reasoning behind the rulings. He writes:

[Beneficence towards kept animals] is by providing its fodder or grazing it as much as it needs. [It is] by being gentle when loading it and walking it, so one does not make them responsible for something they are not able to do. [It is] by not milking its milk except what is in excess of its children[’s needs], to treat its mange, and to treat its sicknesses.

If he slaughters, he does it with beneficence: by sharpening the blade, cutting quickly, with the animal laid down gently. [It includes] leaving it alone after slaughtering until it becomes cool.

[Beneficence includes] that if some animals harm other animals, such as by goring – even if some annoy others through head-butting, or the like – he separates them, since [the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said that] “there is a reward for service to every living animal”,[7] and [Allah says in the Qur’an] “whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it” [Q99:7]. [Also, the Prophet also said that:] “On Resurrection Day, rights will be paid to those to whom they are due so much so that a hornless sheep [can seek retaliation] by punishing the horned sheep which broke its horns.”[8]

Whoever sees someone load an animal with more than it can bear is to order him to reduce it. If [the owner] refuses, he removes it with his hand, since [the Prophet said:] “He who amongst you sees something abominable should modify it with the help of his hand; and if he has not strength enough to do it, then he should do it with his tongue, and if he has not strength enough to do it, [even] then he should [detest it] from his heart, and that is the least of faith.”[9]

He (may Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “When you travel [through a land] where there is plenty of vegetation, you should [go slow and] give the camels a chance to enjoy the benefit of the earth. When you travel [through a land] where there is a scarcity of vegetation, you should hasten with them.”[10]

[And in another narration he said:] “A prostitute was forgiven as a result of giving water to a dog.[11]

A significant addition here is applying the principle of enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong when someone has overburdened their animal. If it applies in this particular type of animal abuse, it follows that it also applies to other types as well. Advocating on behalf of voiceless animals to ensure they receive their rights is one form of carrying out this religious duty.

* * *

As mentioned above: Allah has granted humankind dominion over animals, though it has been tempered in many ways. The legal and ethical contents of this “tempered dominion” – when followed – lead to welfare and beneficence for both man- and animal-kind. And bringing this about is part of mankind’s appointment to stewardship over the earth. It is a religious obligation that keepers of animals provide sufficient upkeep for their animals. This upkeep is a requirement of keeping any creature possessing a soul. This requirement can be enforced by the authorities; in some situations, the Muslim community may be required to assist in providing for the animal. It is also a religious obligation to treat animals with all manners of mercy and kindness, and to avoid unnecessarily harming or annoying them in any way. These attitudes and concerns are essential elements of Islam’s worldview and social philosophy. And they were reflected in Muslim history, as can be seen in the many endowments that were established for the sake of providing for animals. (For example: the banks of the Barada river in Damascus were an endowment for retired animals. A recent documentary entitled “The Cats of Istanbul” provides a contemporary example of this worldview in action.)

It is important to reiterate that these rulings are not something optional that Muslims are just free to take or leave as they see fit, or whenever they feel sentimental. Rather, these rulings are a part of the Sacred Law which holds true across all times and places. It is this Sacred Law that is the standard that Muslims return to when evaluating issues and actions.

It is hoped that this paper will enable a reassessment of our treatment of kept animals – both those we keep ourselves and those that are kept for our benefit. It is not just the hot contemporary issues – such as intensive animal farming, animal experimentation, pet abandonment and caring for strays, and habitat destruction – that need to be assessed in light of the Sacred Law; but also our role as stewards of the earth. As crucial as it is that we remind ourselves of how we are supposed to treat the animals we keep and to reassess how we keep them, it is even more crucial that we always keep in mind that while the Sacred Law places such a high value on the sanctity of animal life, it places even greater value on the sanctity of human life. Indeed, how we treat humans and other animals today is part of what determines our collective futures in this world and the next.

(n.b. You can read the full paper at the Tabah Foundation website here.)

[1] Integrated Encyclopedia of the Quran, pp189–210.

[2] {هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ لَكُم مَّا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا}

[3] {أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ سَخَّرَ لَكُم مَّا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَالْفُلْكَ تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِأَمْرِهِ وَيُمْسِكُ السَّمَاءَ أَن تَقَعَ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ بِالنَّاسِ لَرَءُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ}

[4] al-ShafiʿiShāfiʿī, al-Umm (Beirut: Dār al-Maʿrifah, 1410/1990), 5:510–11.

[5] al-Ghazālī, al-Was (Cairo: Dār al-Salām, 1417/1996), 6:248–9.

[6] al-ʿIzz ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Rules of the Derivation of Laws for Reforming the People, trans. Muhammad Anas al-Muhsin (Kuala Lumpur: IBFIM, 2010), 223–4. For the original Arabic, see Qawāʿid al-ahkām fī maṣāliḥ al-anām (Damascus: Dār al-Ṭabbāʿ, 1413/1992), 240.

[7] al-Bukhārī, al-Ṣaḥīḥ, 2363; Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 2244; and others.

[8] Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 4:1997.2582; al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 2420; Ibn Ḥibbān, Ṣaḥīḥ, 7363.

[9] Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 1:69.49; Ibn Mājah, Sunan, 1275, 4013; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 3430; al-Nasāʾī, 5008; Ibn Ḥibban, 306, 307.

[10] Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ, 1926; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 2569; al-Tirmidhī, Sunan, 2858; Ibn Khuzaymah, Ṣaḥīḥ, 2548, 2550; Ibn Ḥibban, Ṣaḥīḥ, 2703, 2705.

[11] Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām, Shajarat al-maʿārifah (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, 1421/2000), sec. 390. For the hadith, see note 20 above.